KPBS AIRDATE: September 05, 2003
Two murderous women have taken up residence at Sledgehammer Theatre. Inspired by Greek legend, each of them has a rather warped morality. One is based on the Medea myth about a woman who, spurned by a husband she literally killed to protect, wreaks vengeance by murdering their two young sons. In the ancient account of Phaedra, she was the victim of acrimony among the gods. Aphrodite made her fall in love with her young stepson. In name and basic details, the two very modern, feminist adaptations bear resemblance to the originals. But they are disturbing stories of our own era that turn the timeless tales inside out.
In Marianne McDonald’s world premiere, “Medea, Queen of Colchester” is a black South African transvestite whose ‘husband’ is a smooth but sleazy thug who works in Las Vegas. When he takes a young, more potentially lucrative bride, Medea is multiply offended: the new wife is younger, female, straight, white and privileged. So the crazed response is less about honor than a rant against ageism, racism, sexism and imperialism. Medea exacts her revenge, but the act loses some of its original horror, because these are not her children, not flesh of her flesh.
In Susan Yankowitz’s “Phaedra in Delirium,” the title character is frenzied from forbidden love. But mostly, she’s obsessed with the sagging, asexual invisibility of middle age. So her passion for her stepson has nothing to do with the gods, but is driven by her own self-serving effort to recapture her youth; she becomes enamored of a younger version of her husband and by extension, herself. It makes the play a lot less lofty, and much more self-involved than the earlier recountings of Euripides or Racine. Furthermore, Phaedra’s Friend, who encourages her to reveal herself to her stepson and later to accuse him to his father, are either motivated by nefarious design or yet another unhealthy ardor. Either is likely in this enigmatic play.
Both productions, running in repertory and co-directed by Kirsten Brandt and David Tierney, are beautiful and imperfect. The stage pictures, enhanced by David Cuthbert’s lighting, are often breathtaking. But the directorial inventiveness sometimes interferes. Some wonderful performances fuel the creations, notably Ruff Yeager in “Medea” and Robin Christ in “Phaedra.” Both plays show, once again, how endlessly intriguing these 2500 year-old stories are. See them along with Sledgehammer’s September series, ‘Vox Hellenic,’ a collaboration with the Grass Roots Greeks that pairs traditional translations with very modern adaptations.
If it’s all Greek to you, it won’t be for long.
>©2003 Patté Productions Inc.